Bernini’s Elephant

In 1665 a small Egyptian obelisk was found in the monastery garden of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome.
Pope Alexander VII asked Bernini to set it up in the square in front of the church. “Make a nice pedestal for it,” he told him.
Bernini had the funny idea to stand the thing on the back of a baby elephant.

Photo licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Elephants were still fabulous creatures in the seventeenth century and a great curiosity. Many artists drew them, though they had never actually set eyes on one.

The Pope was interested in the meaning of the old hieroglyphic inscriptions and asked a famous Egyptologist to translate them for him. “The obelisk is a symbol of sunlight (sole), Holiness,” he told Alexander, who was delighted and fancied that the old stone needle was a glorification of his reign as pope. Poets then rose to the occasion: “The elephant brings this Egyptian obelisk, symbol of the rays of the sun (sole), to the Seventh Alexander as a gift. Isn’t the creature wise? Wisdom has given to you alone (sole), O great Alexander, the gift of the sun (sole).” Or some such nonsense.

(public domain photo)

Bernini may never have seen an elephant. He got the toes wrong. And isn’t that tail a bit thick? But his animal is funny, so who cares? Camels were unknown too. Look at Rubens’ camels.

The Adoration of the Magi by Rubens (detail), Prado Museum, Madrid (museum page here)

The Pope approved Bernini’s design and Bernini turned it over to Ercole Ferrata to carve. Now it stands in the pretty little piazza—one more of the wonderful Bernini creations that adorn Rome. Who was Pope Alexander VII?

Salvador Dalí turned an obelisk-toting elephant into a daddylonglegs for this painting: A Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate One Second Before Waking now in the Thyssen Bornemisza Museum, Madrid

Fair use copy

And Dali’s  St. Anthony faces a whole parade of elephants toting obelisks and other attractive cargo:

See it enlarged here



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14 Responses to Bernini’s Elephant

  1. I think putting the obelisk on the elephant’s back is a brilliant conceit. An Eastern beast together with an Eastern trophy. I have read that Bernini copied the idea of an elephant carrying an obelisk from a woodcut in the 1499 book, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili” (Poliphilo’s Strife of Love in a Dream’): image via Wikipedia, no less! More 1499 pictures of elephants here and can see how much better is Bernini’s.

    There’s another one, too, a little later, in Catania, Sicily. There, the elephant is really a Roman statue, which makes it still more piquant.

    Bernini’s elephant is too small, as is obvious from relative size of the young man in the tasteless pink shirt in your photo. It doesn’t look like a baby; just out of proportion to the obelisk.

  2. 100swallows says:

    Great, Judith, maybe you should have written a little verse for the Pope. Thanks for the links.
    Maybe the elephant IS too small for his load, now that you say so. He doesn’t actually look like a baby elephant (I forget what they look like). Professor Hibbard in his book called it a baby elephant and I just figured he knew something I didn’t. A downsized adult or a baby, it looks cute as is. I was glad for the guy in the tasteless pink shirt because, aside from the touch of tasteless color, he stood there like those meter sticks you arkies use to show scale.

  3. rich says:

    Where have I seen that elephant before?

    Now I remember: Salvador Dali had painted his spider-legged versions of it and he even did a surrealist sculpture.

  4. wrjones says:

    I like the design, your story, and the bright shirt.

  5. 100swallows says:

    rich: Thanks. Check out my addition to the post.

  6. 100swallows says:

    Thanks, Bill. What do you think those six tombstones (?) mean on the elephant’s saddle blanket?

  7. Anonymous says:

    They aren’t tombstones; they’re stylized mountains, and the design is the coat of arms of the Chigi family, to which Pope Alexander VII belonged.

  8. Veronica Viggiano says:

    I think it’s interesting that the elephant is in the piazza outside the church where Pope Leo is buried and Pope Leo had a white pet elephant named Hanno. Is there any chance that Bernini placed the elephant there because Leo is buried in the church?

  9. Trish says:

    It’s unfair and inaccurate to say Bernini never saw an elephant. While it is true he didn’t have access to photo references or a local zoo, he would have seen accurate depictions by other artists and witnessed an elephant himself, when they toured Italy. It’s not a perfect representation (mostly due to a sabotage in design by a sour competition), but it is pretty damn close.

  10. Anonymous says:

    And has anyone heard the tale that one of Bernini’s detractors lived in a building near the piazza and he purposely placed the elephant with it’s behind facing the building, it’s tail held as if the elephant is about to evacuate its bowels??

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